Age Discrimination and the Homogeneous Department

Tandy McConnell, April 2005

Not that anyone in academe is ever likely to go to jail for it, but it is worth remembering that after the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was adopted in 1967, discrimination against otherwise qualified job candidates on the basis of age has been illegal. Yet even 30 years later, we find the Professional Division of the AHA declaring (in an “Advisory Opinion Regarding Age Discrimination” issued in June 1996) that it had “found troubling evidence of age discrimination within the history profession.” Its members discovered disturbing evidence that some “[history] departments [were] trying to narrow the applicant pool through the use of age-restrictive criteria in job descriptions or arbitrarily eliminating otherwise qualified candidates because of age.” Although such candidates may have “benefited from more extensive life experience” before beginning graduate school, “search committees sometime tend to be biased against those whose lives do not fit traditional patterns. By eliminating well-qualified candidates simply because of age, search committees lose valuable opportunities to enrich their departments and institutions.” Furthermore, the advisory opinion’s authors categorically added, “the use of such criteria at any stage in the search and hiring process is unprofessional and may constitute age discrimination, which is illegal.”

Despite the ethical and even legal sanctions against it, discriminating against the middle-aged job seeker is so temptingly easy and so imperceptible—even to the search committees that perpetrate it—that it continues to occur all too often. The cost of such discrimination can be seen not only in lost opportunities for potentially valuable members of the academic community, but also in homogeneous history departments. Especially hard hit are those who seek to enter the history profession late in their lives, having come to graduate school itself late for one reason or another.

In a fiercely competitive job market where the supply of qualified candidates is far in excess of the available jobs, search committees are faced with too many resumes, and necessarily and routinely engage in a winnowing process. The results are predictable. When a search committee makes its initial cut to shorten the list from 100 applicants, say, to 10, the not-so-young women and men who began graduate school after a decade or two as schoolteachers, lawyers, clergy, salespeople, soldiers, or stay-at-home parents fail to make the first cut. Their resumes leave too many questions unanswered. They seem overqualified; they seem less likely to fit in; they are different. Equally challenged are historians who may be serving in untenured or otherwise unsatisfactory positions who simply hope to move to a more appropriate place, perhaps in the same time zone as their spouses, or one with better opportunities. Although neither historical research nor teaching benefit markedly from youth, experience and age counts against many historians in a market instinctively tilted toward the young and potentially brilliant over the middle-aged scholar who may be accomplished but seems less inspiring.

Entering the Profession of History Late

Prospective historians who are already well into their thirties when they begin thinking about graduate school start with many disadvantages. They will be 40 or older when they enter a glutted job market. They will be competing with younger people who, perhaps, had fewer distractions in graduate school. They will have more explaining to do on their resumes and in interviews. However solid their record of scholarship and teaching, the deck will be subtly, but effectively, stacked against them. My own experience is illustrative and painfully instructive. In 1989, I was a 32-year-old pastor of a small church in South Carolina. I had gone into the ministry out of a sense of vocation, a desire to make a difference in the world by doing something that mattered, committed as I was, in a nonspecific sort of way, to social change. My heroes were radical theologians and ministers like Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Clarence Jordan, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. So a week after graduating from college, I started seminary. Three years later, having learned Greek and Hebrew, counseling, church history (which I unexpectedly liked quite a lot), and systematic theology, I became a pastor. For seven years I had preached and taught, organized groups, defused conflicts, and tried to find fulfillment in what I had persuaded myself was my calling. But I knew I was straining the patience of my congregants and making myself (and my wife) increasingly miserable. It took me seven years to admit my failure to find vocation as a pastor, and decide to do something else. By 1989, I had no doubt that I was a teacher.

Despite warnings about the uncertain academic job market, and risking the disapproval of parents and in-laws, I took the GRE and started applying to graduate schools. Within six months I was sitting in an orientation session for new graduate students at the University of South Carolina surrounded by a multitude of twenty-somethings. I did well. I was happy for the first time in years. I made ends meet working as a TA, adjuncting at assorted schools in the area (including one stint teaching in a medium security prison), and serving as a chaplain in the Army National Guard. I loved doing all of that too. I liked having a more complex resume than most of my fellow graduate students. I was a soldier and an officer, and I could perform weddings and funerals. I had been a firefighter and a farm hand. I knew Hebrew. People asked my advice about moral and theological matters. It was great while it lasted.

It lasted until I finished my dissertation in 1996; I was still in the National Guard, still teaching as an adjunct, still enjoying what I did, but facing the increasingly desperate facts of a cruel job market—including the challenging problem of explaining the complexity of my story to a search committee. Tell the search committee that I was a minister and a soldier as well as a scholar and teacher? Leave the seminary degree, the Army commission, and the bulk of the 1980s off my resume? With no easy answers and a lot of rejection letters, my choices seemed limited. I interviewed at a prep school and at a couple of community colleges. Those were desperate days, and I felt at times like a failure again; but I knew, however it might look, that I was living the right life this time. Still, I had things on my resume that could poison my chances of ever getting past the first cut. I was no longer young. I had good recommendations, lots of experience, and a few publications, but so did everyone else.

But a year later, I had secured a position at Columbia College in South Carolina, which hired me on my 40th birthday. I started as an assistant professor of history. In 2001—perhaps because of my age and experience as a pastor and chaplain where I had learned something about budgets, organization, and conflict management—I was asked to serve as department chair. Two years after that, I won tenure. Whether this story offers hope or reads as a cautionary tale depends, I suppose, on one's vantage point and ambitions.

Ageism and the Search Committee

I cannot know with any certainty that my resume failed to make the first cut with the scores of search committees that looked at it just because someone disliked the idea of sharing the faculty lounge with a former preacher or part-time soldier. Search committees, while skimming through identically glowing letters of reference, are not looking for the best scholar and teacher but for the best candidate for the job. They want to hire someone who will be successful and win tenure at their institution, who will add something of value to the departmental culture, and who will get along with others while adding diversity to the department. This is not an easy task. Most search committees make good faith efforts to, in the words of the AHA's Statement of Standards of Professional Conduct, "base hiring decisions . . . solely on professional qualifications without regard to sex, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, veteran status, age, certain physical handicaps, or marital status" (words that are retained in the latest revision that was published recently). But inevitably, they are also looking for candidates whose job histories do not raise awkward questions or promise future conflicts. And how does one fairly assess the nonacademic experience a prospective faculty member gained before starting graduate school? Are two years in the Peace Corps better than four in the Marines? Should that stuff even be on an academic c.v.? If it is left out, what is the committee to make of the decade or more left blank?

Age and apparent gaps only increase the opportunity for speculation. If a candidate's resume shows college graduation in 1980, and reveals nothing else until 1995 when she started graduate school, one has to wonder what she was doing in those missing 15 years? Raising a family? Serving time for embezzlement? Is it legal to ask? Would it not be easier and safer to move on to the next resume and put this one in the "Thank you for your interest . . ." stack?

Not only is it easier to pass by such difficult resumes, it is easy also to be attracted to the candidate whose scholarly path more closely resembles that of the search committee members. Even if many members of the search committee are often closer in age to an older candidate, they rarely share the kinds of career experiences the candidate may have had, and have thus more in common with the more recent graduate. The cost to the department that engages in age discrimination when hiring (even if unwittingly) is not that it unfairly penalizes people who found their scholarly vocations late in life, but that it reduces the level of diversity within the profession of history. The luxury of moving unimpeded from high school to college to graduate school is not available to the many thousands of Americans who exchange their undergraduate education for a debt burden that costs as much to finance as a house. If blue collar voices, or those of the rural poor, or recent immigrants, or any of the other fragments of American culture that do not enjoy the financial prerogatives of the middle class, are to be part of contemporary historical discourse, then middle-aged candidates are not simply one more group with a grievance, they are a potent resource for creating a more diverse academic culture.

What Can Be Done?

How is such diversity to be gained and sustained? I myself try to level the playing field for candidates of diverse backgrounds and life experiences when I am serving on a search committee. In making the initial cut, I try to make sure that the "short list" of candidates includes people in their 40s and 50s as well as their 20s. In the interviews and conversations that follow, I try to get responses to a set of questions that allows people of any age to demonstrate their diversity of experiences and level of maturity. And if the youngest candidate wins, I can be confident that the system worked fairly. By the time the interview is over, I want to know:

  1. Is there anything that the candidate has attempted and not been successful in? More importantly, what has she or he learned from the experience of failure?
  2. Can the candidate articulate a sense of vocation that will sustain him or her over the course of a career?
  3. Does the candidate want to do the work of teaching and scholarship more than he or she wants to be a professor of history? If he or she fails to get a tenure-track job, will he or she still try to be a scholar and teacher? Is this a quest for status—to be a historian and a professor—or a response to a call to a life of learning and teaching?

Ultimately, graduate students who have the ability to succeed as historians usually get a chance to do so, even when the deck is stacked against them and even if the job they end up with is not the one they dreamed of. And history departments that plan intentionally for diversity can benefit in critical ways by ensuring that age discrimination does not undermine their efforts.

—Tandy McConnell is associate professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. He has, among other publications, edited (and contributed to) the volume on the Holocaust for the St. James Press (an imprint of Thomson Gale) series, History in Dispute (2002).